September 20, 2011

ASU's Clark Fishing for National Championship

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Payson Clark, above with a shark caught off Dauphin Island last summer, started both his collegiate lacrosse career and his pursuit of a marine biology degree in Alabama, but he's now doing both at Arizona State.

For many college-aged kids who grew up in the desert surrounding Phoenix, the prospect of sitting at the end of a dock stretching into the Gulf of Mexico in the utter darkness of a 3 a.m. Alabama morning would be a nightmare. For Payson Clark, it was a dream come true.

That's where Clark, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., and a junior captain of the two-time MCLA runner-up Arizona State, found himself on more than one occasion during his internship at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab this past summer. It's a relatively remote location – basically an upgraded sand bar just outside the mouth of Mobile Bay – but for those undergrads who, like Clark, are on a quest to break into the marine biology field, the Dauphin Island research facility is paradise.

It was a great experience, but certainly no day at the beach. Clark was essentially a grunt, assisting grad students and doctoral candidates as they pursued their research, whether on land or during 18-hour trips out to sea.

"I worked in the lab with things like entering data into a computer to sampling fish, which would have been like dissecting fish and collecting the gonads and muscle samples looking for mercury or stable isotopes," said Clark. "Other days, we were out on the boats fishing and collecting samples. Some days we'd go out 80 miles, other days we'd go out about 10 miles. We would do all sorts of fishing from long-lining to gill-netting to seine-netting to troll-netting. It was just a fun experience and I got a lot of experience with marine biology."

While it was a brand new experience for Clark, his summer job wasn't the first time he has found himself in an unfamiliar part of Alabama. In 2010, Clark was part of the second recruiting class at Birmingham Southern, an NCAA Division III program and member of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference. A talented midfielder, Clark helped the Panthers post a respectable 7-8 record on his way to earning second team All-SCAC honors.

It was a brief stay in Birmingham.

"I thought it would be fun to start off at a new school with a new program," Clark said. "Everybody would be the same age as me and I would get a lot of playing time. I got a little bit homesick, however, and wanted to pay a cheaper tuition."

The decision brought Clark back home to the desert, and eventually a spot up the road at Arizona State. While ASU does not have a marine biology discipline, it does have a well-respected life sciences department that would give him a good biological foundation and an opportunity to seek out internships. The success of the lacrosse program made Tempe a slam dunk.

The Sun Devils were coming off an appearance in the MCLA national championship game, where they lost to three-time defending champion Michigan by a goal. But more importantly, they were coached by Chris Malone. Malone, who moonlights as the director of the Starz lacrosse program in Arizona, was Clark's club coach and the two had a solid relationship.

Somewhat surprisingly – at least to some in the varsity world – Clark needed time to get up to speed with last year's uber-talented ASU squad.

"I felt like the practices were a little more intense at ASU and the team was more competitive than Birmingham Southern," said Clark. "It took a couple of weeks to get used to playing at a little faster pace, but other than that, the guys were really welcoming and Coach Malone is a great coach."

"Payson is a very likable person; people want to be around him," said Malone. "He definitely fit in with his teammates from the start. If anything, it took some time figuring out what my expectations were for him. As the season went on, he had a better understanding of where he fit in on game day. He was well of aware of my coaching style, and that tends to take some players some time to get used to. He didn't have to worry about that."

Clark finished with nine goals and seven assists in his inaugural campaign, helping the Sun Devils post a 14-5 record and make a return trip to the national title game. His impact was felt more on the field than what appeared in the stat sheet, which was exemplified by his election as one of the team's captains as a junior.

"Payson has a tremendous work ethic that younger players can look up to. He's one of our captain's for a reason," Malone said. "His teammates respect him and they know he, along with the other captains, will help this team reach its goals. Last year was his first year with us and it took him some time, but he grew into a player that wanted the ball in his stick and wanted to make plays. He made a big one for us in the semifinals against Michigan, scoring a goal in the third quarter."

"My big thing is getting hyped up for games and getting everybody ready to go and at full energy," said Clark. "I would say my energy is my biggest asset."

The expectations will once again be high for the Sun Devils, even with the loss of a pair of First Team All-Americans, and anything short of a championship will be a disappointment. "The chemistry on the team is unlike how it has ever been," Clark said.

He's also setting his sights higher in his marine biology pursuits. This coming summer, Clark is hoping to do his own research – perhaps at Pepperdine or UC Santa Barbara – and start making a name for himself in that field, as well.

If everything works out as planned, it will be a dream come true for both Clark and Arizona State.

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